by The Financial Services Insider (a secret, for obvious reasons)

Too many companies are still treating enterprise web content as an animal separate and apart from the rest of the enterprise’s content. It’s a wasteful mistake that leads to some crazy behavior. Let me explain.

The Financial Services InsiderI work for a financial services provider which is supposed to file its web properties with an industry watchdog or face audits and possible fines. When I started with the company, the websites had never been filed, and the compliance department was reluctant to increase the public web presence for fear of drawing unwanted attention to this fact. Since I was hired to make our sites competitive in the market, this was a nonstarter; obviously, I thought, the sites had to be filed so that we could be loud and proud.

We use a web content management system (WCMS) from one of the big enterprise providers. It’s a notoriously crummy implementation, so hard to use that mentioning it in meetings is a reliable source of hilarity. It’s so bad, in fact, that the folks in the compliance department refuse to use it to review web content; they only go in there to approve or refuse content, not to provide feedback. In order to file the web content, they told me, someone would need to print every web page and every attachment, and deliver the paper copies to the compliance team for markup. The web team would receive the paper markup and transfer the changes to the WCMS, create new printouts…lather, rinse, repeat. Paperpalooza; we have 1200-some webpages.

Now, this company traffics in compliant enterprise content; we administer people’s retirement savings, so we damn well better keep good records. The enterprise realized long ago that the key to accuracy and efficiency is to automate enterprise content management. We have a bajillion systems, processes and automated workflows to ensure that disclosures are compliant, money is moved according to regulations, and records are securely retained and stored.

We pride ourselves on being trustworthy stewards of other people’s money, and on managing our own responsibly and efficiently. But because web content has always been treated as a sideline to our core business, we don’t attribute the same value to the content we put on the web that we do the content in our backend systems. And consequently, we don’t apply the same level of technical sophistication. When it comes to bridging the gap between backend and the web, we rely on a lot of workarounds to accommodate the bad WCMS implementation instead of fixing it. Since those busy paper shufflers who manage compliance won’t use the WCMS, the labor-intensive paper review process throttles the amount of new content we publish, and discourages changes to existing content, so our websites are weak…which in turn perpetuates the perception of the web as an afterthought. It’s a beautifully vicious circle.

Problems? Yeah, we got problems.

Crummy, stale web content: since publishing new content requires a new round of paper reviews, content doesn’t get added or refreshed very often.

Inconsistent content across channels: because the WCMS isn’t integrated, web content doesn’t harmonize with content from other sources. For example, a new print and email marketing campaign that has a web component requires someone from the web team to manually copy-and-paste content from the other channels, tweak it for the web, and submit it for separate review (on paper, remember!). If, say, the print content changes for some reason, the web team has to rely on luck to learn about and reflect those changes on the web.

Error-prone content: since web content is a copy-and-paste job, and since it must manually be reconciled with content from other channels based on luck and happenstance, mistakes get made. For example, we recently discovered that the mailing address for one of our field offices had been wrong on the web for several years. It had been changed in the corporate directory but that database doesn’t talk to the WCMS, and no one had notified the web team of the change (a customer had to point it out). It’s not like automated content reuse is some sort of mystery in the web content world. Ann Rockley has been writing about how to avoid this problem by adopting a Unified Content Strategy for more than a decade.

No audit trail: the paper review/feedback process means that until content gets into the WCMS, there’s no audit trail of who requested which changes, which leads to…

Inconsistency between reviewers: since paper reviews are conducted by whomever happens to be on review duty in complianceland at a given time, one set of corrections is often superseded by the feedback from the person who gets the next review copy. This kicks off a round of meetings with anyone and everyone who might have an opinion. Maybe even a committee. Or two! Since there’s no “tiebreaker” reviewer, the meetings are time-wasting consensus-building exercises. And at the end of the day there’s no record of these negotiations since they occur outside the WCMS.

By rearchitecting the WCMS and integrating it to play well with other systems that produce content, and building in feedback workflows that those responsible for compliance will actually use, we could cut down significantly on the hidden costs of all these problems, and we could focus on producing more, higher-quality content. But until the web content is perceived as of equal value to other enterprise content, we have trouble getting resources to fix the problem. And since the web continues to suck, it continues to be treated as a sideline. I spend a lot of my time trying to explain this to any-and-everyone who’ll listen, and seeking funds to upgrade and integrate the WCMS.

Meanwhile, my colleague, a smart and experienced web professional with far more patience than I just spent six days creating screen grabs of every single web page, printing them, collating them with their attachments, and numbering and cataloging them. The company paid her to do this. She carried them over to complianceland on Friday. I hope she doesn’t spend next week looking for a new job.

I’d like to hear from you

I’d wager you have similar experiences. If so, please share them here. I, for one, can’t wait to read your stories of information mismanagement. Please tell me I’m not alone.